Forlorn hopes? Australia’s population future

Peter McDonald, Australian National University

Erik C. Paul Australia: Too Many People? The Population Question Aldershot, Ashgate, 2001 (206 pp). ISBN: 0-7546-1850-1 (hard cover) £39.95.

Erik Paul, a Visiting Fellow in Geography at Macquarie University, argues in this book that Australia has too few people, but that the present geographic distribution of its population is inefficient. Accordingly, he argues for a ‘ring’ of new cities in northern Australia (from Townsville to Port Hedland) with population sizes of 1–2 million people. The proposed cities are sized at 1–2 million because the author argues, with reference to Sydney and Melbourne, that there are diseconomies of scale when cities exceed two million people. There are ‘high economic and social costs in the continued growth of the southern megacities’. He does not indicate where the proposed new cities would be but implies that existing towns and cities would expand dramatically. Nor is he specific about how many cities constitute a ring (or an arc to be precise).

Populating the north is an old theme in Australian history dating back to the early nineteenth century. My great-grandfather (Alexander McDonald), a sailor on the British naval vessels that charted northern Australia in the 1840s, spent a little time at the ill-fated settlement at Port Essington. The settlement failed because it was unable to develop an economic base, or more basically, a purpose for its existence. My great grandfather’s many descendants gravitated to the south and now live almost exclusively in the southern cities of Sydney, Canberra, and Brisbane.

Paul argues that it was British colonialism and the White Australia Policy that ‘kept out Asians, Africans and many other cultures who would have populated and developed northern Australia and challenged the rise of the southern cities’. He does not tell us why the north was not populated by the Indonesians who visited its shores for many centuries before British settlement, but suggests that the northern ring of cities might be populated mainly by Asians. This would then give Australia close and personal networks with burgeoning Asian economies.

He asserts that ‘Australians are likely to support a greater intake of migrants if it is part of an open debate in the context of a policy which links greater numbers to a population redistribution to northern Australia’. Paul says a statue of liberty should be built at the entrance of Darwin harbour inscribed with the following lines from a famous poem: ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’. In the light of the debates at the 2001 Federal election, this all seems a little ‘other-worldly’.

Populating the north is an old theme in Australian history, dating back to the early 19th century.

Most of the book is a litany of chapters about what is wrong with Australia, drawing mainly on media sources, especially The Sydney Morning Herald. Successive chapters deal with quality of life, equity, scarcity and conflict, democracy, foreign investment, resource management, and engagement with Asia. Child abuse, drug addiction, youth unemployment, mental health problems, the environment, public trust, poor health, political conflict, the great social divide, the corporatist state, managerialism, corruption, corporate democracy, the wealth distribution, foreign ownership, the trade deficit, Australia’s sovereignty, land degradation, etc. are all linked to the argument that there should be a ring of new cities in northern Australia.

If you are looking for negatives about Australia, there are few missing in these chapters. There is little qualitative assessment of these reputed ills and, indeed, it is not unusual for the author to cite conflicting statements some pages apart, with both presented as negatives. For example, we read about high unemployment in Sydney at one point as an indicator of its inefficiency and low unemployment in Sydney at another point as an indicator of how Sydney is bleeding the rest of Australia.

Given that Canberra is the only new city created in Australia since Federation, a ring of cities in the north seems unlikely. In the new economy, focus has returned to the big cities, and a reversal in the fortunes of Sydney and Melbourne, in my view, would indicate that Australia was about to become Tasmania in economic terms. I would settle for a focus on the development of one city only, Darwin. If Darwin were to grow to the size of Canberra or greater, this would indeed represent success in the historical context of northern development.

Most of Australia’s population growth in the next 40 years will be among those aged 50 years and over. They will not be moving to a ring of cities in northern Australia, rather most will age ‘in place’, further increasing the populations of the southern cities. We should be planning for this outcome. As the balance of new population shifts from natural increase to net migration and as migration from overseas is so heavily focused upon the big cities, the expectation of growth outside these cities (aside from coastal resort areas) is a little forlorn.

The book is absolutely ridden with errors of spelling and grammar. It clearly has never been copy-edited, not a good advertisement for its publisher. At 40 UK pounds a shot, better is expected.

Peter McDonald is Professor in the Demography and Sociology Program at the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.

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